Spring into prevention: Warmer days bring parasites, is your pet prepared?

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

It seems very early for my spring article, but since just last week I walked my dogs without their jackets (that is a big deal for their nearly naked selves) I suppose it is time. While part of my yard is hanging on to snow, the rest is a miserable mud pit. My horses are dropping hair like last season’s styles, and we have instituted dog foot wiping before they can head into the house. Since this is Vermont, we will likely have another foray into snowy winter, but for the time being, let’s talk spring. I am going to start with everyone’s favorite topic — parasites. Many people wait for warmer weather to start worrying, but ticks are active above 36 degrees or so. If you’ve been keeping track, that’s been a lot of the past 10 days. While I strongly recommend tick prevention year-round since ticks are active in just about every month now, not everyone listens to me (it’s OK, I’m used to it.) If your pet is not on prevention year-round, they should be starting soon.

Heartworm prevention must be started as soon as the weather is warm enough for mosquitos, while grass and any temperature above 36 degrees gets the ticks moving. Typically, people who take breaks can take a break with heartworm prevention for longer, since our temperature swings often mean we aren’t dealing with mosquitos for another month or two. Ticks, on the other hand, are out right now and ready to bite.

Heartworm medication also acts as a dewormer, and many dogs are getting luckier at finding mice and other rodents as the snow melts. One of my dogs is a serious hunter, and as the snow melts she is able to find more paths and nests that rodents have been using. She makes short work of these poor creatures, much to my chagrin. For this reason, she gets heartworm prevention even in the winter. Since heartworm pills also act as a dewormer, I recommend it for pets who are prone to getting worms or who live with children (even in the offseason.)

If you can see grass or brush, the ticks are out and can be biting. Since ticks don’t die in the cold weather, as soon as they can crawl from grass to pets they will be around. As anyone who has started tapping trees for maple season can tell you, the ticks are out in the woods. March is the month we typically start seeing a spring surge in tick activity, so make sure your pets are up to date on their tick prevention. While most people are now aware of Lyme disease, the breaks in protection we see are usually from starting prevention too late or ending too early. Anaplasmosis and Ehrlichiosis are two other diseases spread by ticks that are much more common as the years go by with increased tick populations.

Many people want all-natural products to use on themselves and their pets, and I understand that. Unfortunately, fleas, ticks and heartworm larvae aren’t killed by all-natural products. This is why they have survived through thick and thin by using their hosts to spread. There are some natural repellents, oils and candles that help decrease the number of mosquitoes that feed on your pet or make them less enticing to ticks. However, we must actually kill the flea, tick or heartworm larvae in order to prevent disease.

The good news is that there are many different types of products out that have been proven safe for many years. There are topicals, collars and chew tabs that give more flexibility to owners. At this point, we do still need to use two different products to prevent ticks and heartworm, but an all-in-one product has come out in other countries, so I am putting all of my hope in that.

If your pet has been using a product that works well, I typically tell people to stick with it. The veterinary-specific collars (as in, not just grocery-store brand) tend to be the most cost-efficient, though it can be hard to remember when they are out of date, and for dogs who swim, their efficacy is decreased (from eight to six months.) Topicals are a good stand-by, though these are also less effective for big swimmers. There are chewable tabs for either once every four or 12 weeks. These are great for dogs who swim a lot, or households with children who struggle with not petting the dog during the time that the medicine absorbs. Chews must be fully absorbed, so you do have to make sure your dog eats it and doesn’t throw it up for a few hours. Your veterinarian can help you decide which product will work best for your pet.

Spring is also the time when most people start thinking about vaccines. Many of our pets have spread out vaccine schedules, so your pet may not be due in these few months. However, next week I will talk about the “annual” visit that many people associate with springtime.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL: petdocanna@gmail.com

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